A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

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Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.

Reading challenges

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Reading challenges have become popular in recent years: you know, where someone gives you a guide or a format for reading a number of different types of books with a view to expanding your reading horizons. They can be useful for people who feel they are stuck in a bit of a literary rut or good for those who are motivated by a deadline. Those sorts of things usually work for me – I am usually the one in my book club who is up late the night before we meet, racing through the final chapters of that month’s book! I think it’s a personality thing.

What I hear from from people more often though is that they would just like to read more. That they are haunted by their ‘to read’ pile (but, book fiends that we are, we still can’t resist acquiring more). And they would just love to carve out a bit of time in their week to read. When I started this blog, I knew that I would have to make time to read if I was serious about it. And I have. I read for about an hour a day – an hour a day I didn’t have before I started blogging! Which just goes to show that if you want something enough you’ll find a way of doing it. And I believe I am a happier calmer person as a result.

So, if that’s you, and if you don’t necessarily need to widen your reading, but would rather just deepen your reading habit, I would like to share my personal reading challenge with you. I think of it as a yogic or mindful rather than a HIT reading challenge!  Join me if you like, it’s about quality rather than quantity.

You can download the challenge here.

Are you doing a reading challenge of your own that you can recommend?

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Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

A book for reading in Winter

2017-01-06-13-49-46Parts of the country have been struck by a severe cold snap this last couple of days; on my walk yesterday I certainly felt the scenery was quite bleak. Yesterday was the end of Advent, twelfth night, and a natural end, for me, of a period of reflection: about the year that has gone and the one that is to come. In June last year I started this blog and I have loved posting every week about my reading and hearing from readers what you have enjoyed. In the past 12 months I have read over 30 books, the bulk of those since starting this blog, and that feels like quite an achievement. I hope to improve on that this year.

My top five favourite reads last year were:

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (shortlisted for the Man Booker and many other prizes in 2015)
  2. Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy (shortlisted for the Man Booker last year)
  3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (published 2014)
  4. The Green Road, by Anne Enright (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015)
  5. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (published in 2015)

My fifth choice was the book I was reading this time last year, when 2015 became 2016. I wrote a review of it ages ago, but haven’t posted it here yet, mainly, I think, because it just hasn’t felt right. It is a book for midwinter. And that is why I am choosing to tell you about it now.

h-is-for-hawk-imgThis book was a long slow read for me, but in a way that suits the type of book that it is. It is an account of bereavement. In that sense it bears reading over a long period because it covers a period of more than a year following the death of the author’s father.

It’s fascinating because it’s not a traditional account of loss; it’s about how a grieving daughter finds a coping strategy in the acquisition and training of a goshawk. Goshawks are hunting birds, rare in the wild in the UK. They have a long history in the tradition of falconry but, according to the author, are notoriously difficult to train. Helen Macdonald took up falconry in her childhood and this was a hobby she shared with her photographer father, who was, by her account, something of an introvert, a man who enjoyed his own company and loved the outdoors.

The book begins with an account of her father’s passing and its initial impact on the family. The rest of the book is about her journey in coming to terms with her grief. She acquires the goshawk and sets about training it, using as her guide a book published in the 1950s by an underachieving schoolmaster (T H White) who wrote of his own frustrations at trying to tame and train a goshawk; ultimately he failed and his goshawk escaped. Helen Macdonald encounters her own fair share of ups and downs (excuse the pun!) in her attempts to train her goshawk and this is an apt metaphor for her grieving process.

This book is not an easy read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book Award in the same year and has been highly acclaimed. It is an impressive achievement. Birds are not really my thing but I found it fascinating to learn about this creature. The accounts of the natural environment are stark – mostly nature is conveyed as hostile and barren, rather like the world of grief the author finds herself immersed in, and very like the goshawk, who is not at all a friendly or sympathetic character in this tale.

The emotions in this book are quite raw, so any reader who has experienced a recent loss themselves could either find it very cathartic or very painful. Grief is not objectified, we are there living it with the author.

I’d recommend this book. It’s a good one for long winter nights, but not for the beach.

If you have read H is for Hawk did you find it bleak or uplifting?

What were your top reads of 2016?

Christmas gift ideas – children’s non-fiction

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A couple of days ago I blogged with some ideas about some fantastic children’s books around at the moment. They were all fiction, and I promised another blog on non-fiction alternatives.

Non-fiction books make great gifts for kids:

  • Buying fiction for anyone, but particularly a child, can be risky if you don’t know them well or are unsure of their reading preferences. Non-fiction is safer.
  • It’s more of a treat – non-fiction books are often a bit more expensive so perhaps less likely to be bought by their parents the rest of the year.
  • They can be a great option for more reluctant readers who may feel daunted by lots of pages of plain text or the idea of sitting for long periods of time. Non-fiction can usually be dipped into for shorter periods and uses more pictures.
  • Fiction is often a bit more disposable, perhaps discarded as a child matures onto a different reading level, but non-fiction is often seen as something more significant, to be kept.

There are some truly awesome non-fiction titles available to children. Here are a few that I would buy (am buying!)

Pre-school/Infants

Lift-the-Flap General Knowledge by Usborne. I love Usborne books – they are bright and colourful, with robust pages that can take a real hammering from little hands, and they have found a magic formula which appeals to children. Anything by Usborne is special and a good investment, and I love how you can buy an encyclopedia for every age group now. This one is designed to appeal to the youngest of readers (and their parents!).

What’s below by Clive Gifford and Kate McLelland is a gorgeous book examining what’s happening in the world beneath our feet. Pop-up books have come a long way – it’s now known as paper engineering! This book is a brilliant concept and will help young children to understand that there is activity and wonder beyond what is perceived by the senses.

Gallop! A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Seder. This has been around for a few years, but it’s such a wonderful book for very young children. The clever designs mean that the animals appear to move as you open each page. It will fascinate little ones.

 

Junior School age

xmas-2-3Nadiya’s Bake Me A Story: Fifteen stories and recipes for children by Nadiya Hussein. My kids love baking and adore the Bake-Off and Nadiya’s victory in the competition last year was inspirational to many. Nadiya is a judge on the children’s Bake-Off on CBBC so kids will still be very familiar with her. This is a lovely book, and Nadiya is a lovely person who has qualities that naturally appeal to children. I love the idea that recipes here are combined with a quirky take on some classic fairy tales.

 

Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielenski. I have bought this a couple of times for birthday gifts. It is large format and visually stunning, a book that will be treasured. Facts about the world are built into the gorgeous illustrations, so it’s educational in a very clever way!

xmas-2-5The Usborne Creative Writing Book. Children are programmed to be creative, but modern life does not always allow them to exercise that muscle. Consequently, a blank page can be daunting for some children and they may need a little nudge or guidance to express their inner writer/artist/designer. There are a wide range of creative journals around just now; I bought this one because writing is the particular interest of the child I have in mind, but others are more gender-based or tailored towards different interests. They provide a great little tool for when kids say they are bored; boredom is good!

 

Secondary school age

xmas-2-6Guinness World Records 2017: Gamer’s Edition. The Guinness World Record Book has been a staple for my son’s stocking since he was young, but at 15 he is no longer as interested as he once was. The Gamer’s Edition is a compromise, acknowledging his passion for computer gaming, whilst fulfilling his mother’s passion for the very un-tech world of books – sneaky!

 

 

 

xmas-2-7The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. Building on the success of his similarly titled books for adults, Covey has written a book for teenagers which encourages goal-setting, helps to build resilience and gives advice on managing relationships with family, friends, peers and authority figures. It is non-patronising and is written very much in the context of the digital age. Just don’t let them see you reading it!

 

 

 

xmas-2-10Fun Science: A guide to life, the universe and why science is so awesome by Charlie McDonnell. Charlie is a highly successful YouTuber who vlogs about science, in the linguafranca of the young people. He has over 2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and clearly has a great passion for his subject, which is always to be admired. The look and feel of the book is a world away from a textbook, so I doubt it’s going to help much with GCSE revision, but the enthusiasm is quite infectious, which is half the battle. I could see this appealing to 11-13 year olds.

 

 

 

I’d love to hear your ideas too – what books will you be buying for the children in your life this Christmas?

 

Christmas gift ideas – children’s fiction

christmas-1869902_1280My children’s Christmas stockings would be incomplete without at least one book – whether they want one or not! – and they can be sure that this family tradition will continue even when they are older. Call it my personal crusade. I am also the book-giver for all the little people in my family; with all their senses under assault at this time of the year, I love the idea of giving something that can provide a little space and calm, and a retreat into their own imaginations.

If that’s you too, or if you would like to consider giving a book or two this Christmas, I’ve pulled together a few ideas for you. I’ve tried to cover a wide-ish age range, but by and large I have not distinguished between genders.

But first, a book for Christmas Eve…The Night Before Christmas

2016-12-08-16-00-112016-12-08-16-01-23This poem was first published in 1823, and is written by Clement C Moore. Despite its age, it is very accessible and is an absolute joy. We have been reading this to our kids on Christmas Eve since they were toddlers and they still look forward to it even though they are 10, 12 and 15! There are many versions available – ours is a rather quirky one (designed by William Wegman), where the models in the pictures are dogs dressed up! The pictures are key to the children’s enjoyment of it, so choose a version that is beautiful to look at and will become a family heirloom.

“‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

 

 

Pre-schoolers/Infant School

Little kids are just so wonderful to buy books for, because they are open to everything! Here are some titles that have caught my eye.

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Zog and the Flying Doctors by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, is the latest publication from this literary super-duo. Marvellous illustrations which are instantly recognisable and a fantastic rhyming story. I recommend starting a child’s Donaldson/Scheffler collection early.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith caused a sensation when it was published last year, and rightly so. A beautiful story with the most amazing illustrations it deserves a place in every home, children or not! The hardback is a thing of beauty, but there is also now a paperback version which is a little cheaper.

Finally, two books from one of my personal favourite children’s author/illustrators, Oliver Jeffers (of How to Catch a Star fame). First, A Child of Books is a collaboration with Sam Winston, published this year. Is a reminder that CHILDREN LOVE BOOKS despite the seemingly relentless onslaught of electronics. They can both lose and find themselves in books in the most joyous way. It’s short but beautiful. And The Day the Crayons Came Home, collaboration with Drew Daywalt, is the second Crayons book revealing that forgotten, broken and lost crayons have lives too, in case you didn’t know. It’s hilarious, so adults will appreciate reading it to kids too. The book is a series of postcards to Duncan from his variously scattered crayons, reminding him they still exist and have needs. Genius!

 

Primary school age

There are some cracking books around at the moment. I will be buying Time Travelling with My Hamster by Ross Welford for someone, because I really want to read it myself! Recommended for 9+ it is about a 12 year old boy who travels back in time in an attempt to save his late father’s life. A bit Back to the Future-ish, maybe, with some tricky themes, but from what I have seen, all handled sensitively and with some humour. It has been shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.

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The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, was also a prize winner when it was first published 30 years ago, and a new edition has been released this year. Recommended for 9-12 years it combines myth and magic and ancient folklore, slightly gentler fantasy fiction for the post-Harry Potter generation, perhaps.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Tan is a brilliant illustrator and writer and this book may especially suit the more reluctant reader. It has lots of pictures, a bit of a graphic novel for younger kids, and some of the pages have only one paragraph, all beautifully laid out so it’s not daunting. A wonderful book about what really goes on behind closed doors.

 

Secondary school age

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The Girl of Ink and Stars by Karin Millwood Hargrave is recommended for ages 11-13 and concerns a girl, Isabella, who lives on a remote island whose inhabitants are forbidden to leave, until one of Isabella’s friends vanishes and she decides to go in search of her. There is myth and magic here, but interwoven with themes of family, friendship and liberty, more suited to the slightly older age group.

Girl Online: Going Solo by Zoe Sugg, on my pre-teen daughter’s must-have list! You’ve got to love Zoella, an icon for the generation which gets so much of its entertainment from YouTube. My girls seem obsessed! I was reading Jane Austen at their age, and whilst this may not be my first choice of reading for them, I also know it’s unwise to be judgemental about their preferences; I have blogged here before about how to keep kids reading and teens present a particular challenge, so whatever works, I say! Take a deep breath and stuff it in their stocking!

I’ll be Home for Christmas by various authors. Many teens will be developing their political and moral values as they become more aware of the world around them. It’s well known that having a sense of gratitude for the things we have can help with emotional well-being and with our teens under so much pressure from social media and advertising, this book may be a useful antidote. It’s a collection of short stories and poems (perfect for the more limited attention span!) on the theme of ‘Home’ and for every book sold one pound goes to the homelessness charity Crisis. Contributors include poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and YA authors Cat Clarke and Holly Bourne.

So, that’s the fiction sorted. Later in the week, I’ll have some non-fiction suggestions for you, and next week I’ll give you some ideas for books for grown-ups. 

What books will you be giving this Christmas?

 

Reading hack #2 – audiobooks

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A few years ago, when I had a proper job, I used to commute 100 miles a day, three days a week, by car. Seven and a half hours a week driving alone.  I did this for nearly three years. Seems crazy now, but the two things that kept me sane were Radio 4 and audiobooks. One of the frustrations of car travel for me is the amount of dead time. I enjoy listening to music of course, but audiobooks make me feel that I am doing something for my brain whilst sitting in traffic or on cruise control on the motorway (wasn’t there a report published just this week saying that Britain has the most congested roads in Europe – I can well believe it).

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Most of my journeys now are shorter ones so I’ve fallen out of the audiobook habit. I subscribed to an audiobook provider recently, however, to get a copy of one of my teenage son’s English Literature set texts, and it has renewed my interest. What is more, with a smartphone or tablet I can listen not just in the car, but whilst doing mundane tasks, during exercise, etc. I’m currently listening to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, so I look forward to reviewing it here in due course.

 

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My kids have always enjoyed audiobooks too; for years now, it has been a tradition that whenever we travel to Ireland to see family we have to listen to The Twits read by Simon Callow, possibly the best children’s audiobook ever! That plus Matilda gets us to Holyhead!

 

 

If our family holiday involves a lot of driving, we will pick an audiobook for the journey. Now that the kids are a bit older, the titles are getting more sophisticated. Last year we listened to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which provoked a lot of in-car discussion!

I will always go for unabridged audiobooks as for me a book is about the words and the way an author puts beautiful sentences together, as well as the story. But if you don’t mind edited highlights, there are also radio broadcasts to enjoy: Radio 4’s Book of the Week and Book at Bedtime run for five 15-minute episodes a week so you can get these on the iPlayer or podcast if you want to listen to something shorter and for free.

So, a few options if you find yourself with time to spare on the move.

Happy listening!

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Reading hack #1 – book reviews save you time

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I’ve blogged here before about how time vanishes and that if you’re a reader it can be so frustrating when it takes ages to read a book. Well, I would like to demonstrate that reading book reviews, rather than eating into more of your precious time, can actually save you time. Bear with me!

First, time is precious, so you don’t want to waste valuable reading time on something you’re not going to enjoy, right? And, if you’re like me, you don’t like giving up on books. I have to really dislike a book before I’ll give up on it. If it’s just that I’m not getting into it then I only allow myself to give up by promising that I’ll come back to it later; I felt able to re-shelve Zadie Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago after making this bargain! So, following a book reviewer you trust or who is on the same wavelength as you can help you choose more wisely.

Second, book reviews can help you engage with the conversation about a book even if you haven’t read it. Do you remember those How to bluff your way in… books? Great for appearing informed at dinner parties/interviews/meetings! Seriously, though, they can help you put things in context. You can watch those bookish Sky Arts TV programmes or listen to the high-brow radio shows and still feel part of it because you know something about the books being discussed.

Third, it can give you background and context about a book so you already have a bit of knowledge about it before you start. A book review can set a scene or give you some of the themes to look out for, thereby enhancing your appreciation of a book. Perhaps even give you some good angles for your book group!

books-1655783_1280There are so many books published that you may find people in your usual circle haven’t read the same things as you. But you will always find book review websites (whose authors would love you to post comments or engage in conversation, hint, hint!), or online reading communities, who have read your favourite most recent read. Sometimes, if I read a book I love (or loathe, though these are very few) I’m just bursting to talk about it with someone. I can always do that online.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? If so, why? Or if not, why not?

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